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Conditions In Brief

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Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Deafness means complete hearing loss. Partial loss of hearing is often called hearing loss rather than deafness. Deafness can occur in one or both ears.

There are three primary types of hearing loss:

  • Conductive—hearing loss caused by the inability of the sound to reach the inner ear
  • Sensorineural—hearing loss caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve. This type of loss is usually permanent.
  • Mixed—hearing losses that are a combination of both conductive and sensorineural loss

The Ear

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The conditions that can cause or be associated with hearing loss include the following:

  • Ear infections
  • Middle ear fluid
  • Earwax
  • Hole in the ear drum
  • Trauma, including birth trauma
  • Nose or throat problems, such as:
    • Nasal allergies
    • Sinus problems
    • Blockage of the tubes leading from the ears to the throat
  • Family history
  • Noise
  • Ear disorders, such as:
  • Infections, such as:
  • Bacterial infections, such as:
  • Tumors involving the:
    • Ear
    • Brain
  • Neurological disorders, such as:
  • Hypothyroidism —underactive thyroid
  • Ototoxic drugs that damage the ear, such as:
    • Aspirin—usually reverses when aspirin is stopped
    • Quinine—usually reverses when quinine is stopped
    • Certain antibiotics—usually is not reversible when stopped

Risk Factors

Deafness may occur at any age. Risk factors that increase your chances of deafness include:

  • Premature birth
  • Increased age
  • Taking ototoxic medications
  • Exposure to loud noise on the job, such as:
    • Loud industrial noise
    • Use of heavy equipment
    • Being a musician
  • Exposure to recreational loud noise, such as:
    • Guns used during target practice
    • Loud music


Hearing loss usually comes on gradually, but may come on suddenly. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty hearing
  • Ringing in the ears, also called tinnitus
  • A sensation of spinning
  • Ear pain
  • Feeling of ear fullness, such as that caused by earwax or fluid

Symptoms of deafness in infants may be noted at these stages:

  • 1 to 4 months: lack of response to sounds or voices
  • 4 to 8 months:
    • Disinterest in musical toys
    • Lack of verbalization, such as babbling, cooing, making sounds
  • 8 to 12 months: lack of recognition of child’s own name
  • 12 to 16 months: lack of speech

All children, including newborns, should be screened for hearing loss.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. As part of the diagnosis, your doctor may try to determine the following:

  • Location of the problem
  • Degree of loss
  • Cause—not always possible to identify the exact cause of hearing loss; this information can help guide treatment

Your ears may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Otoscopy
  • Tympanometry
  • A brainstem auditory evoked response test
  • Bone vibrator—also called a tuning fork test
  • Audiogram —also called a hearing test

Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:


Treatment for deafness depends on the type of hearing loss. Options may include:

  • Medical treatment, such as removal of earwax or use of antibiotics to treat an ear infection
  • In selected cases of sudden hearing loss, medical treatment with steroids may be effective.
  • Hearing aids to help amplify sounds
  • Surgery, such as:
    • Stapedectomy—for treatment of otosclerosis
    • Tympanoplasty —for a perforated eardrum
    • Tympanoplasty tubes—for persistent middle ear infections or fluid
    • Cochlear implant —a surgically implanted electronic device that helps provide sound to a person with severe sensorineural hearing loss. Although the devices do not completely restore hearing, improvements in implant technology continue to be made.
  • Learning sign language or lip reading to improve communication skills


To help prevent deafness, avoid loud noise. In cases when loud noise cannot be avoided, you can reduce exposure to loud noises by wearing ear protection. Also, taking steps to reduce injuries or disease may prevent certain types of deafness.

There is currently no effective way to prevent congenital or genetic deafness. Hearing screening for newborns can help ensure that hearing loss in young babies is detected and treated at the earliest possible stage.


American Academy of Audiology


National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders



Canadian Academy of Audiology


Canadian Association of the Deaf



Deafness and hearing loss. World Health Organization website. Available at: http://www.who.int/topics/deafness/en/. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Deafness and hearing loss research. The Scripps Research Institute website. Available at: http://www.scripps.edu/discover/deafness.html. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Hearing, ear infections, and deafness. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website. Available at: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/Pages/Default.aspx. Updated September 8, 2013. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Hearing loss. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website. Available at: http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Hearing-Loss/. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Plaza G, Herráiz C. Intratympanic steroids for treatment of sudden hearing loss after failure of intravenous therapy. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2007 Jul;137(1):74-8.

What is hearing loss? NIH SeniorHealth website. Available at: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/hearingloss/hearinglossdefined/01.html. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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